Skip to content

Crisis in the Catholic Church

Professor Tony Coady is Professorial Fellow in Applied Philosophy and Vice Chancellor’s Fellow at Melbourne University. He is currently visiting the University of Oxford as Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Applied Ethics. He is a Catholic.

In the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, the famous Protestant historian Thomas Macaulay wrote admiringly of the Church of Rome and the Papacy commending their ancient lineage and current vitality. He saw no signs of decline and speculated that the Church “may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.” 

Today, Macauley’s assessment seems unduly optimistic. Scandals about clerical sexual abuse of children and the associated official evasion of responsibility as well as inflexible attitudes to so many of the values and dilemmas of the contemporary world have combined to undermine to a large extent the confident self-image and apparent cohesion that helped sustain the durability and vigour that enchanted Macaulay. Following a series of alarming revelations about the extent of clerical sex abuse in Ireland and the gross inadequacy of the hierarchy’s responses to it, coupled with the Irish Prime Ministers strong denunciation of the official Church’s record on the matter, the recent BBC program “The Shame of the Catholic Church” (broadcast 2/5/12) added further fuel to the blaze. Although the broadcast was primarily concerned with the abuse and evasion of church authority it also indicated the depth of the wider crisis in the Church.


The program concentrated on specific instances in the Irish clerical establishment’s disgraceful failures to detect, acknowledge and prevent the wave of sex abuse by Irish priests over at least the last 50 years. It highlighted the role of the present Primate of Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady in a 1975 inquiry into allegations of child abuse against the man who proved to be a serial sex offender, Fr. Brendan Smyth. There have been calls for the Cardinal to resign over the inquiry’s several deficiencies, including a failure to inform parents of the allegations their children made and a failure to deal adequately with Smyth who continued cheerfully on his depraved ways while being moved around the country. It is yet another case adding to the pile of evidence from many countries that the official Church put its reputation and standing far above the safety of the children in her care and the respect due to their parents. A consequence of this has been a marked culture shift away from the instinctive trust, deference and respect for priests and bishops which was traditional in Ireland. In other places where clerical sex abuse has been inadequately dealt with a similar shift can be observed, though the change is a move away from an initially less respectful position.    

But although the facts of the ghastly epidemic of clerical sex abuse of minors and of the hierarchical failures in reporting or dealing with the abuses have been major factors in the dramatic decline in clerical authority and respect over the past 40-odd years, there have been many other factors undermining that authority. The papal encyclical Humanae Vitae of 1968 reasserting the standard ban on artificial contraception has been confirmed by the passing of the years as a crucial turning point in the Church’s grip upon the obedience of Catholics, since it is clear that a vast majority of Catholic laypeople disregard the ban with no compunction and that hardly any clergy in the industrially advanced world advert to it in their preaching. But loss of authority on this matter has simply reinforced the determination of church leaders to hold the fort on a range of disciplinary and doctrinal issues that the reforms of Vatican Council II opened the way to review.

The Vatican Response

The Vatican response to the spread of critical questioning from within has been to exercise what power it has to suppress ruthlessly any signs of dissent, even the mildest. Since the laity is these days largely immune to ecclesiastically imposed sanctions, the primary focus for the exercise of brutal power has been on the clergy (with occasional less effective forays against politicians). 

Numerous Irish priests, including Fr. Tony Flannery and Fr. Brian Darcy have been disciplined recently for speaking and writing about contentious issues that the Vatican regards as closed. The Congregation for the Doctrine and the Faith (formerly known as The Inquisition, or more fully and pompously as The Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition) has been prominent in these suppressions of the priests, several of whom belong to Ireland’s 850-strong Association of Catholic Priests. The ACP held a meeting in Dublin on May 7, this year, to discuss changes to the Church and it was attended by over 1000 people. The ACP also recently commissioned a survey of Irish Catholics which found that 90% would support the introduction of married priests. The survey also found that 77% of Irish Catholics want women to be ordained, while more than 60% disagreed with Church teaching that gay relationships were immoral. ( See BBC News Europe, May 7)

 Several recent examples serve as models to demonstrate the Vatican’s modus operandi.

An Australian Case

The first is the case of Bishop Morris in the Australian diocese of Toowoomba. Bishop Morris had been subjected to a campaign of hostility from Vatican episcopal bureaucrats since he was reported by some conservative people in his diocese for a supposed inclination to downplay personal confession in favour of the general form of confession involved in what is called the Third Rite of Reconciliation. A pastoral letter in 2006 in which the bishop discussed some of the problems facing the church with diminishing clerical vocations and an ageing clergy proved the final straw. In that letter, he argued that the church should be open to discussion of such possibilities as ordaining women, ordaining married men, welcoming back former priests and recognising the validity of Anglican, Lutheran and Uniting Church orders. This was particularly offensive to the Vatican since Pope John Paul II had prohibited even the very discussion of the issue of women priests. The Vatican appointed Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver to investigate the matter and after speaking with various laity, bishops and priests in Australia he made a secret report to Vatican authorities as a result of which Bishop Morris was forced to take early retirement. Bishop Morris has openly stated that in his conversations with various authorities, including Pope Benedict, he was never told what specific charges had been made against him and hence given no right to defend himself. Nor did he ever see the Chaput report.

Alarmingly, Bishop Morris revealed that in the Pope’s final letter to him Benedict had claimed that ” Pope John Paul II had said irrevocably and infallibly that women cannot be ordained.” The very idea that a disciplinary rule could be subject to infallible decree is nonsensical, and if the Pope and his associates think that the prohibition on the ordination of women is a matter of faith or doctrine they are surely deluded. To the best of my knowledge this is the first time that the previous Pope’s edict has been treated thus. The comment should probably be viewed as a piece of rhetorical exaggeration from an embattled leader.

There are several revealing aspects of this imbroglio. One is the contempt shown by the Vatican for the notion central to modern governance and administration of “due process”. As the Australian Jesuit lawyer, Frank Brennan wrote in a considered review of the Morris case in the Australian Catholic magazine Eureka Street “The matter is a complete mess reflecting very poorly on a Church which prides itself on a code of canon law which provides for the protection of the rights of all Christ’s faithful, including priests and bishops.” (Eureka Street, vol. 22, no. 6, March 27, 2012) A second aspect is the widespread debate triggered in Australia by the removal of Bishop Morris and the solid support he has received from so many Catholic clergy. A third is the fundamentally feeble response by the majority of Australian bishops to the Vatican’s dictatorial behaviour, indicating once more that they view themselves not as pastoral, prophetic leaders, but as mere functionaries of the Vatican.

Those Troublesome Nuns

As is commonly the case in organizations dominated by men, the Church’s top officials are especially apprehensive about the thoughts and conduct of the women in the ranks, especially the nuns. The case of Sister McBride discussed below is instructive, but even more significant is the recent Vatican move against the United States Leadership Conference of Women Religious (USLCWR). Since the liberalizing winds of Vatican II, the various orders of nuns have been in the forefront of new thinking and fresh policies in religious life. The Vatican had been investigating the feisty American ladies for some time and the result is that their major organization has now been placed under the guidance and oversight of, guess what, a MAN, the Archbishop of Seattle. The Vatican apparently found fault with the Conference’s fidelity in promoting church teaching particularly on life issues. As another Australian Jesuit Andy Hamilton pointed out in a comment in Eureka Street, this move, though so far much milder, has echoes of the way the Church’s male leadership tried in the early 17th century to smash Mary Ward and her plans for a new congregation of religious women who would depart from the enclosure within a convent and who, adopting the Jesuit rule, would engage in pastoral work and teaching on an international basis without the supervision of men. Her congregation was suppressed and she was imprisoned for a short time. The papal bull that suppressed the congregation expresses beautifully an attitude to women by church rulers remnants of which linger today. It said:

“Free from the laws of enclosure they wander about at will, and under the guise of promoting the salvation of souls have been accustomed to attempt and employ themselves at many other works which are most unsuitable to their weak sex and character, to female modesty, and particularly to maidenly reserve — works which men of eminence in the science of sacred letters, of experience of affairs of innocence of life undertake with much difficulty.”

It concluded, “we totally and completely suppress and extinguish them, subject them to perpetual abolition and remove them entirely from the Holy Church of God… And we wish and command all Christian faithful to consider them and think of them as suppressed, extinct, rooted out, destroyed and abolished.”

In spite of all this, Mary Ward’s sisters continue today and the picture of the role of nuns expressed by that papal rhetoric is, one would hope, merely comical and embarrassing even to  Pope Benedict and his assistants. In the words of Sir Humphrey of “Yes Minister” fame, the Bishop of Seattle has been handed a “courageous” task.

A nun was at the centre of another controversy in Arizona in November 2009 when Sister Margaret Mary McBride agreed to authorise the abortion in St. Joseph’s Hospital, a Catholic hospital in Arizona, of an 11 week old fetus in the well-grounded belief, supported by the medical authorities in the hospital, that only this action could save the life of the mother. In May, 2010, the Bishop of Phoenix, Arizona, declared that McBride had excommunicated herself by formally cooperating in the procurement of an abortion and she was removed from her senior position in the hospital. Bishop Olmsted thereby unleashed a storm of controversy that has many lessons for the current state of the Catholic Church, especially concerning the exercise of church authority, but also about the moral status of abortion, about the role of the church in secular societies, and about the significance of “absolute” moral rules.

Policing the Ban on Abortion

To start with church authority. Let us suppose that the modern Catholic stance on abortion as a very grave wrong (or “mortal” sin) is correct. Why should Sister McBride’s sin require her instant removal from office, public condemnation, and “automatic” excommunication when the sexual predation on innocent children by alarming numbers of priests and religious has regularly failed to bring such consequences upon them? On any account, raping or sexually molesting a child and using your priestly or religious office to secure the abuse and then to cover it up is a grave wrong, and less controversially so, than abortion to save a mother’s life. Nor are many other sins, or the endorsement of them, grounds for the sort of reaction that this nun’s sin brought down upon her. In 2007, the Pope, with full Vatican pomp, made the then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, an honorary canon of St. John’s Lateran, an honour traditionally conferred o the French President, even though Sarkozy is pro-abortion, favours gay marriage, and is himself, in the eyes of the Church, married invalidly. Clearly, denunciation, excommunication and removal from office are political and relate in Sister McBride’s case to the Vatican’s obsession not only with abortion and sexuality but with the control of non-conforming clergy. 

The case also raises acutely the viability of the current Catholic teaching on abortion. The idea that abortion, even in the very early stages of embryonic or fetal life, is a kind of murder, i.e., the killing of a human person, has been persistently challenged within the Church over the last 20 years or so. One of the best critiques is the book, A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion, by Daniel A. Dombrowski and Robert Deltete, the issues in which I discussed in a review essay in Eureka Street some years ago and which was republished in Conscience, the US magazine published by Catholics for Choice ( Eureka Street, vol 12, no. 1, 2002; Conscience, Vol. XXIII, 2003). The basic point is that there may be some wrong normally associated with deliberately induced abortions (though this wrong is defeasible) but it is misguided to assimilate it, except perhaps in the later stages of pregnancy, to anything resembling murder. Nor is the basis of this the objection fundamentally recent—Aquinas, for instance, held that “ensoulment” (or as we might say “personhood”) occurred much later than at conception. The insecurity of the current teaching is reflected in the fact that large numbers of ordinary Catholics do not believe it and do not conform their behaviour to it. Recent US Gallup Poll figures (March 30, 2009) have shown that 40% of Catholics (compared to 41% of non-Catholics) found abortion “morally acceptable” and 63 per cent found medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos morally acceptable (compared to 61 per cent of non-Catholics). A Knights of Columbus poll in 2010 showed that 67 per cent of Catholic “millennials” (i.e., those aged 18 to 29) think that medical research using stem cells obtained from human embryos is “morally acceptable” or “not a moral issue” even though it involves what the Vatican sees as immoral abortion (Knights of Columbus, American Millenials: Generations Apart, February 2010). Of course, these people may all be mistaken, but they are a lot closer to the realities of sex, pregnancy, and parenthood than the isolated celibates that enforce the “doctrine”, and so widespread a disregard of church teaching should at least prompt a rethink. Instead, it remains ignored.

Some have argued that the controversy around the Arizona decision shows the folly of thinking in terms of moral absolutes. I would hesitate to abandon entirely the idea of absolute moral prohibitions, since I think that total prohibitions on torture, rape and the intentional killing of innocent people (who don’t want to be killed) are deep and central to a civilised morality. But Catholic moral theology, and indeed ordinary common sense morality, have always recognised interpretive space around such prohibitions and had a sense of the complexity that can surround moral decisions in context. So, the ban on intentional killing of the innocent in war has always been sensitive to the heavily qualified permissibility of unintended but foreseen killing of the innocent that nowadays goes under the title of collateral damage, Though much abused in contemporary warfare, the category seems to make initial sense. Similarly, shooting down one of the hijacked planes that killed thousands in New York on September 11, 2001 would have been morally licit even though the saving of all those lives would have encompassed the deaths of hundreds of innocent passengers as well as a few terrorists. A particular interest in this example is the fact that the innocent passengers shot down were doomed anyway because of the terrorists’ intentions. This is also true of the fetus in the Arizona case which was certain to die, along with the mother, if the abortion had not been performed. This sort of fact is an important ingredient in assessing the bearing of a moral absolute on the circumstances of a particular decision. An additional significant factor where one can be saved or both die is the fact that the choice is between someone who is clearly, fully and uncontentiously a human being and an entity that is at best on the path to that status. This is not to deny some moral import to the status of an 11 week old fetus, merely to insist on the distance between that status and the status of the mother. There are features of the developing fetus that show it in process of becoming a fully-fledged human being, but the question of becoming a human being is not an issue about the mother.

Church and State issues

The full complexities of the church/state issue defy a brief comment here, but two things can be said. The first is that the Church’s view that abortion at any time in any circumstances is morally equivalent to a kind of murder, and hence never permissible, is, to say the least, hardly rationally compelling to any unbiased mind. It is clearly controversial, not merely in the sense that people disagree with it, but in the sense that it is perfectly intelligible that people of good character and sound mind should. Indeed, not only do many lay Catholics and non-Catholics disagree but a number of respectable contemporary theologians as well. Given this situation, it is doubtful that the relentless pursuit of the abortion issue by the hierarchy and their allies makes moral or political sense. The US Catholic bishops were reduced by this single-issue focus to opposing the Obama health care reform when it relaxed restrictions on access to abortion and some of them threatened to refuse communion to Catholic politicians who support pro-choice measures. The second point is that bishops and priests who intervene to punish, prohibit or correct fellow Catholics need at least to take account of the Church’s teaching on the rights of conscience and to balance it against the requirements of authority. As the current Pope put it in his earlier, more liberal phase as a Cardinal theologian, when commenting on Vatican Council II: “Over the pope as the expression of the binding claim of ecclesiastical authority there still stands one’s own conscience, which must be obeyed before all else, if necessary even against the requirement of ecclesiastical authority.” (Quoted by US theologian Daniel Maguire in “Hierarchy, Sex and Power: a Primer on Educating Bishops”, Conscience, April-May, 2010.)The recognition of this fact should have militated against the strident, punitive reaction of Bishop Olmsted against a woman who, supported by her hospital’s ethics committee, was conscientiously attending to her duties as a healer when faced with a very difficult choice.

There is no reason to impugn the sincerity of the clerical belief (and that of many lay Christians) in the profound wrong of abortion at even the earliest stages of embryonic life, but it is strange that a teaching which has no scriptural basis and a doubtful basis in tradition is defended so fiercely and presented as so constitutive of Catholic identity. It rests basically upon a disputable piece of philosophical metaphysics to the effect that the moment of conception marks the instant creation of something with the full moral status of a human person, or, as some put it, “a rational individual”. But there are many other ways of construing the status of that miniscule entity. One could, for instance, prefer to view the coming to be of a human being as a process begun by conception but only reaching the sort of status that goes with a very strong prohibition on killing at some threshold of moral importance much later than conception. This would be consistent with treating the fetus at an early stage (though not, I think, the embryo at conception) as having some value in itself as the bearer of potentialities that are important to it and that it would be prima facie wrong (but not murderously so) to frustrate.

The Resistance to Change and its Future

There are more and more voices within the Church urging the revisiting of the total ban on abortion but they are not being listened to by the authorities. In this they face the same wall of disapproval and potential sanction that confronts many other serious dissenting voices on other rigorist bans, such as those on contraception, divorce, clerical marriage, homosexuality, women priests, and most matters involving human sexuality. The fact is that the Catholic Church’s authorities do not want their arguments and rulings on these issues contested because they have been backed into a corner. This is a corner where admission of failure and mistake is seen to carry too many costs. One cost is the painful psychological adjustment required to revise one’s clerical self-image as a certain kind of authority. This image portrays bishops, and especially the Pope, as custodians of transparent, cut and dried, divinely sanctioned, eternal truths which they proclaim decisively about a vast range of human activities to a compliant lesser clergy and laity. The image requires historical naivety, scriptural simple-mindedness, theological crudity and a lack of sensitivity to experience. Its grip is bolstered, of course, by an understandable fear that openness to change will betray those millions who have been compliant to the old narrative for so long and will involve a disloyalty to what the hierarchy sees as God’s charge to them. It would also require a dramatic and initially painful change in the ecclesiology that has dominated the Church’s self-presentation to the “outside” world for several centuries and helped create a reactive and mostly hostile attitude to so much in the modern world. Church structures steeped in a lost world of monarchical, absolutist sovereignty, secretive processes and male domination will have to be renovated to make them more consistent with the profound insights of the ideals of liberal democratic governance, even if those ideals are frequently betrayed and ignored in practice in the democracies that openly profess them. It is understandable that those who believe that the current image and structure of the Church is somehow divinely ordained are reluctant to embark on such a journey.  Less laudably, resistance to serious change is supported by anxiety about loss of power and about decline in the influence of the institutional offices and structures within which the lives of so many bishops, clergy and religious have been given meaning. These latter factors, of course, were also prominent in the disgraceful reaction of the institutional church for so long to the sex abuse offences of clergy and religious. But the abuse scandal has shown that closing ranks, cover-ups, and stubborn resistance to admitting mistakes and failure are poor substitutes for facing facts and for changing attitudes.

In the era of Pope Benedict XVI (and for that matter his predecessor) the hope for such turbulent renovation may seem very dim. I would certainly not be confident of an early transition, but there are several factors that make for a small degree of optimism. One is the great decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious in the industrialised world indicating that, outside the poorer, largely pre-modern regions of the world, the incumbent image makes little appeal. Another is the battering that the idealised “holy Mother Church” has received from the treachery of the sex abuse scandals; this betrayal of trust, though not directly connected with doctrinal matters, did show up the degree of hypocrisy associated with much of the public clerical stance on sexual matters (some of the worst abusers were loud in their denunciation of condoms and in promotion of “family values”). In fact, the insensitivity and confusion of the hierarchy’s attitudes to clerical child abuse was highlighted by the recent Vatican document revising canonical rules for dealing with the matter. The revised list of rules also treated attempts to ordain women priests as “a grave crime” suggesting that it was somehow in the same category as brutal raping of a child. Vatican spokesmen denied this implication, describing the attempt at female ordinations as “a sacramental crime” rather than “an egregious violation of moral law”, but the damage had already been done (See “Vatican Revises Church Law on Sex Abuse”, National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2010). A third concerns the fact that not only are very many laypeople who still describe themselves as Catholic alienated from or indifferent to official teachings on the morality of sex, abortion, euthanasia, the role of women and much else to do with personal morality, but a great number of theologically literate clergy and laity are impatient with the rigidity of what one theologian has called “Vatican theology.” Rome wasn’t built in a day and it won’t be reformed in a day, but massive, top-down political structures have a way of unexpectedly collapsing under the weight of their own incapacity to adapt to changed environmental forces, as we saw with the demise of the Soviet Union. The Catholic Church may well prove as vigorous and durable as Macaulay anticipated, but that is likely only if the edifice is subject to extensive repair.

P.S. It was reported in December 2011 that, according to a statement from St. Joseph’s hospital, Sister McBride is no longer excommunicated and is in good standing with her order, the Sisters of Mercy

Share on

4 Comment on this post

  1. “Alarmingly, Bishop Morris revealed that in the Pope’s final letter to him Benedict had claimed that ” Pope John Paul II had said irrevocably and infallibly that women cannot be ordained.” The very idea that a disciplinary rule could be subject to infallible decree is nonsensical, and if the Pope and his associates think that the prohibition on the ordination of women is a matter of faith or doctrine they are surely deluded. To the best of my knowledge this is the first time that the previous Pope’s edict has been treated thus. The comment should probably be viewed as a piece of rhetorical exaggeration from an embattled leader.”

    John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter “Ordinatio Sacerdotalis” is pretty well-known, as is the 1995 “Responsum ad Dubium” by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI). These likely are the references in the letter to Bishop Morris.

  2. Wolfgang L Grichting

    Hi Tony,

    A well written comment; indeed so good I should have written it myself. The only think you seemed to omit was the suggestion that much would not be a problem if only the abusing clergy had been members of the ADF!

    I hope you enjoy your trip and are able to enlighten all those that are “closer” to Rome!

    Wolfgang L Grichting

  3. Thanks, Tony. A highly persuasive argument, which I hope reaches the ears of the top brass in the Vatican. One small point. The Pope may have been in a more liberal phase when he put conscience above ecclesiastical authority. But that position doesn’t strike me as especially liberal. Some people’s consciences are significantly less liberal than the Church.

  4. Thanks Roger, I too hope my thoughts have some positive effect on the upper reaches of the Vatican, but I’m not holding my breath.

    On conscience, it seems to me that the emphasis on the importance of conscience is indeed a liberal one, in the sense that one strong strand in the liberal tradition is a stress on the value of the freedom of the individual in the face of collective power and authority, hence, the advocacy by liberals of space for individual freedom of thought, speech and choice of religion. Conscience is, of course, narrower than some of this because it is concerned only with morality, but there are obvious links to freedom of thought, choice and also to Mill’s advocacy of individuality and “experiments in living”, as well as the way other liberal writers stress the moral value of autonomy.

    Of course there is no guarantee that the exercise of conscience will invariably produce good outcomes. But in this it is like the exercise of reason or political freedom. There are people with corrupt or mistaken consciences just as there are those with a malicious or misguided use of liberty. But this is a problem that liberal thinking faces with a variety of its key concepts. Of course, the idea of conscience needs clarification and some understand it differently from others. My own view, which is I think consonant with that of Aquinas, is that conscience is a form of practical reasoning about moral matters, though I do not construe reasoning in a narrow Humean fashion. But that gets us into deeper waters than those into which a brief blog reply should plunge.

Comments are closed.